On Set With ‘Mapplethorpe’ Director Ondi Timoner
The legend of 1970s New York City counterculture wouldn’t be the same without Robert Mapplethorpe. He helped build the freewheeling bohemian mythology that has been so alluring to the young artists who flock here today hoping to find their creative identities in the electric energy of the city, the same way Mapplethorpe found photography and, in a way, found himself.
In Ondi Timoner’s debut feature, Mapplethorpe, the award-winning director seeks to explore the influences that guided the artist from aspiring to legendary, and dazzled so many in the process.
Why were you drawn to creating a biopic? Your work has primarily been in documentary film, so I’m assuming that a biopic was a great place for you to start for a scripted feature.
Ondi Timoner: I make movies about people who are uncompromising. I make movies about people that take on the impossible and sort of act impossibly in their quest to have their vision realized in a time in history or at a place where people can’t understand what they’re doing just yet.
I do that because I’m trying to inspire audiences to push the boundaries and stick to their [own] vision, so I feel like this fits completely. Mapplethorpe took on LGBTQ culture—really BDSM—at a time when that was deemed completely obscene and there was no acceptance of that world. He made it into fine art; he made it beautiful and he fought to do that. He went from Polaroid to the Hasselblad and made gay culture and the male figure into fine art like Rodin or Michelangelo.
I thought it would be really exciting to bring him alive on screen. I was never interested in making a documentary about him. I was always interested in bringing this mercurial character to life because he lived at a very different time in history, and it wasn’t that long ago. It was only 30 years ago that he died, but in the ’70s in New York, it was not acceptable to be [openly] gay. Also, he made photography into a collectible art form. I thought that, historically speaking, it’s really interesting, but also personally, I was always attracted to his personality. He’s a lot of gray area, and I tend to like people who aren’t black or white or straight-ahead heroes but are these people that you can’t help but love. But then you change your opinion about them and grapple really with your own issues throughout the viewing experience. So he fits right in.
I think “mercurial” is the perfect word for him.
OT: Yeah. And Matt Smith, the actor who played him, is like that, too. From the moment I met him, I thought there was some underlying tension—something that wasn’t quite satisfied, something that was always grasping for something invisible, just off the edges. I felt it and I thought, He’s the one! So I asked him to read… That was five years ago.
How long has this project been in your mind as something you wanted to tackle?
OT: I optioned the rights in 2006, from a great man named Bruce Goodrich, and then set about producing and directing it, and brought it to the Sundance Lab in 2010. I won the Grand Jury Prize in 2009. They asked me if I had any scripted material, anything that I was looking at doing in the scripted space and I said, “Well, I do have this project about Robert Mapplethorpe.”
I wanted to make an unfolding suspense story out of his story; one where you didn’t know what was going to happen next and you could kind of go on a ride with him from his coming of age and coming into his art simultaneously. I wanted to do his life in fast motion like black and white so fast it becomes gray. If you look at him coming of age and coming into his art you can see how his art led him to his sexuality and led him away from Patti.
He was exploring his sexuality through his photography…
OT: Right. And that led him into these clubs and the camera sort of mediated that experience so that he could feel safe in a way behind the camera. But then simultaneously, the camera was like this tiger’s tale that led him into these worlds.
Both Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith are such iconic personalities; was it difficult for you to cast actors to play these very real people?
OT: You just have to be careful with the casting when you’re dealing with real people because you have to capture their essence while also capturing their physical appearance. It’s a hard balance to strike but it’s a fascinating process. I didn’t find it difficult but we got really lucky. We had a great casting director named Judy Henderson, and then New York has such great talent on Broadway and Off-Broadway and on stage. Because we had a limited budget, we had to cast locally but if you’re casting locally in New York, you have the cream of the crop.
It seems more important to capture the essence of the person than the physical appearance.
OT: When I met Matt, I met a person who felt like the person I had written about. I had only seen Doctor Who and that was only because my son was a huge Doctor Who fan. My son was the one who insisted that I take the meeting with Matt, and he was only 9 at the time. When I met Matt, it was immediately apparent that he possessed those qualities and that’s what you want in casting. You want to find people that can be the character that you’re writing about, the person that you’re trying to portray… It’s a real person so it’s really important to get it right. Somebody like Robert Mapplethorpe is so singular.
In any film or book or story about Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol or any of these quintessentially New York artists, the city itself becomes a kind of character. What was your relationship to the city when you were working on this film?
OT: Once 9/11 happened, New York became gentrified. So, when I was making We Live In Public, that shift happened—9/11 happened—and it was really the end of the millennium. Marking that moment in time really marked a change for New York. It became this shopping mall, not to say it’s all like that, but Manhattan is lost to Duane Reade in so many ways. So, in shooting this, I had to look and see that none of the cheesy, awful, corporate signs were in this. I had to shoot for the period. New York’s pretty good from the third floor up. It’s still got all these buildings and just really, really beautiful stonework. So, I would drive to set and back with my Super 8 camera on my lap and I would shoot the Brooklyn Bridge and I’d shoot the river and I’d shoot the buildings. We used all film in this—16mm and Super 8. I shot all the Super 8, and I just went looking for Robert’s New York.
Jonah Markowitz, our production designer, Nancy Schreiber, our DP, and I sat down on my couch in LA. The three of us are all based in LA but have spent oodles of time in New York. We sat with Nan Goldin books and Cindy Sherman and “New York in the ’70s” books and “New York in the ’60s” books and really pored through them. What is the color temperature like? What does it feel like? and How do we bring that to life?
We bathed the film in a warmer feeling. In the ’70s, it’s an edgier time, a time where Robert’s exploration personally and psychologically really mirrors the exploration that is going on in the city at that time. There’s a lot bubbling right under the surface that’s about the come out in ’60s/’70s New York. When you get to the ’80s, it’s much colder. The look of the film is colder; it’s a more steely blue and gray. We were very specific about the color palette and the look of it.
WORDS Hillary Sproul